Creating technological solutions to agriculture’s biggest problems is a complex practice. Plants grown for agriculture exhibit huge diversity both within and between species; something which can also be influenced by environment and geography. In addition, trying to combat multiple different pathogens and pests, which can be animal, bacterial, viral or fungal in origin as well as abiotic factors, is a significant challenge. This is a challenge for which data is the solution.
The theme of the latest ELIXIR Innovation and SME forum was ‘Data-driven innovation in the agritech sector’, which attracted over 400 registrations to the event. Originally planned as a physical event at the Bayer LifeHub Lyon, France in March 2020, the event took place virtually over three days from 10-12 March 2021.
It’s all about data
In his keynote talk François Tardieu (INRAe/EMPHASIS) stated: “The cheapest experiment is the one already in the database”. This simple statement encapsulated the sentiments captured throughout the event.
Several speakers showcased platforms that are making existing data more Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). Keynote speaker Monika Solanki introduced Agrimetrics, a company who apply semantics to open access and paid-for data to index existing data and crucially adding value to data for users and providers. Presentations from AgDataHub and KWS presented their pipelines for data integration to help farmers and plant breeders respectively.
Several resources developed by the ELIXIR community were also working towards a similar aim:
- Plaza (presented by Klaas Vandepole; VIB, ELIXIR Belgium)
- a tool to centralise genomic data produced by different genome sequencing initiatives and providing user friendly and interactive tools for comparative genomics. This tool was developed in collaboration with ONTOFORCE, a company offering software to aggregate, transform, and orchestrate data from multiple data silos.
- PIPPA (presented by Stijn Dhont; VIB, ELIXIR Belgium)
- an open access web tool and database developed by ELIXIR Belgium that provides the tools for the management of different types of plant phenotyping robots and for the analysis of images and data.
- FAIDARE (presented by Cyril Pommier; INRAe, ELIXIR France)
- a portal combining genomic, phenomic and historical plant data alongside literature and bioschema resources, providing a ‘one stop shop’ for FAIR Plant Data.
- MIAPPE (presented by Ana Portugal Melo; Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, ELIXIR Portugal)
- a standard for plant researchers on what metadata is essential to include when developing experiments and publishing data.
Machine learning to bypass evolution
Once the data becomes FAIR, and large datasets become accessible, the applications can reach a new level. Keynote speaker Fred Van Ex showed how computational methods are used at INARI to bypass evolution and make predictions on suitable combinations of genetic variants. This enables them to edit these directly and design new proteins in silico prior to using CRISPR-editing in physical trials. This thereby ultimately ensures a higher success rate in less time, with less waste than traditional breeding methods.
Send in the drones
Analysing Images obtained from new sensor and drone technologies is another field rich with opportunities for applications of machine learning. Keynote speaker Sten Guezennec from the Climate Corporation framed this practice of gathering and analysing field level data as ‘Digital Agriculture’: the next agricultural revolution. Digital agriculture forms the foundation to precision agriculture; applying the right product, at the right place at the right time. He stated “Data is of no use to a farmer unless it's processed. The future is in predictive & decision making software & automated application”. Companies HIPHEN, Bilberry, CarbonBee and Bayer also presented their innovative ways of manipulating this rich resource of data to facilitate the transition to precision agriculture, putting the power directly in the hands of farmers.
The event culminated in a series of roundtable discussions with themes on agri-semantics, public-private partnerships, and field high throughput plant phenotyping. Lively discussions and debates produced some interesting outputs that gave participants and speakers food for thought on leaving the event. Feedback reflected this with 85% of participants saying they had increased understanding of the topic area, with 55% saying they would apply this knowledge in their work in the next 6 months.
Agritech is driving the next agricultural revolution
The scope of this event was broad, but the take home message was simple: Agritech has real potential to drive a new, digital, agricultural revolution. This revolution will ensure the continual improvement of crops to improve yields and nutrition,while simultaneously reducing the impact on the environment by enabling informed decision making and prediction in regards to plant breeding and farming practices.
The first three keynote talks were recorded and you can find them through our ELIXIR YouTube channel playlist for the event, regrettably the final keynote talk from Sten Guezennec from the Climate Corporation is unavailable to a technical error in the recording process. Slides from all presentations at the event are available.
If you are interested in attending ELIXIR’s future Innovation and SME events you can find details of upcoming forums on our industry pages. Please contact Industry Officer, Katharina Lauer (katharina.lauer [at] elixir-europe.org), for further information on hosting or attending the forums.